- Historic Sites
Russians In California
An Imperial colony on our West Coast was their aim; Fort Ross was their military outpost; and the stakes—higher than they realized
April 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 3
In the meantime, despite fierce native resistance, the Russians were consolidating their own position in the north. A station was set up on the island of Kodiak in 1784; and in 1799 headquarters were established at Sitka for the Russian-American Company, a fur monopoly whose interests went well beyond mere trade. Although Catherine the Great had renounced territorial aspirations in the New World, her mad son, Paul I, had given way to his courtiers, and granted the company a far-reaching charter. Now Paul’s son—and perhaps his murderer—the young Alexander 1, was Czar. At this stage of his reign Alexander gave signs of being a liberal ruler of the Western type; and he was surrounded by ministers whose ideas and methods—rational and efficient to a degree unprecedented in Russia—apparently also resembled those of the West. Most of these men of the new type, like their Czar, had ambitious plans for Russia. One of them, in fact, the Czar’s Chamberlain, Nikolai Petrovich Rezanov*, stood on the Juno’s, deck, coolly directing her when she ran past the guns of Fort San Joaquin, through the Golden Gate and into San Francisco Bay.
A curious train of circumstances brought the Grand Chamberlain of the Russian Empire to the remote Spanish outpost. Nearly three years earlier, on August 7, 1803, Rezanov had sailed from the Baltic as the senior dignitary of the first Russian expedition around the world. Two ships, the Nadezhda and the Neva, made the journey. Officially the Chamberlain’s title for this mission was Plenipotentiary and Envoy Extraordinary to the Emperor of Japan, but his broad discretionary powers extended to the entire Pacific.
At Nagasaki in the winter of 1804–05, however, Rezanov met with humiliation and failure when he sought a trade agreement with the xenophobic Japanese. Rezanov, a proud man, was furious, and intended to return immediately to St. Petersburg to request the Czar’s permission to conduct a punitive expedition against Japan. But at Kamchatka in Siberia, he found letters ordering him to inspect the Alaskan holdings of the Russian-American Company.
Rezanov was admirably qualified to make this inspection tour. Few Russians were as familiar as he with their nation’s interests in the Pacific; few had as great a personal stake in the struggle for power that was taking place on the American coast. For although he came from a family that had possessed noble status since the sixteenth century, Rezanov was a self-made man whose future was bound closely to the fate of Russian America. His hereditary title of barin, which is often mistranslated as “baron,” signified only that he was a member of the minor nobility. He did well at court as a guards officer, but the turning point of his career was his marriage to a daughter of the principal founder of the Russian-American Company, Grigori Ivanovich Shelekhov. The girl’s dowry consisted of a large block of shares in the company; and when she died in 1802, shortly alter the birth of their second child, Rezanov became independently wealthy. With Shelekhov’s widow, he directed the operations of the company, and he advanced brilliantly at the court of Alexander I. As protégé of the Czar’s leading minister, Count Rumiantsev, he was named Chamberlain, Privy Councilor, and Procurator of the Senate. Yet, although Rezanov was only forty-one years old when he was ordered to Sitka, and had become one of the powerful men of the empire, he was in ill health, fatigued by his travels, and still deeply saddened by the death of his young wife.
At Sitka, Rezanov was shocked to find the colony on the verge of starvation. Throughout their occupation of North America the Russians, faced by a chronic shortage of ships, had the utmost difficulty in maintaining their supply lines. The commandant, Alexander Baranov, was brave, energetic, and loyal, but under the pressure of brutal northern conditions, he had also become an alcoholic.
In this atmosphere Rezanov and his suite, which included two young naval officers, a valet, and his personal physician, the German naturalist George Heinrich von Langsdorff, endured a terrible winter in 1805-06. By the end of February, eight of the 192 Russians at Sitka had died of scurvy.
To make matters worse, fur-taking had declined seriously after a half century of ruthless extermination. The remaining sea otter were moving southward, and Baranov had no ships to chase them.
Astutely Rezanov decided that the survival of Russian America depended on the establishment of a new colony to the south, where both food and fur could be gotten easily. The question was how to get there, even for reconnaissance.